Exploring England 2015, Part 7 – A taste of Archaeology.

Saturday, Jun 25, 2016 at 21:53

Member - John and Val

England has multiple layers of history lurking underfoot. Our eldest son Rob works as an archaeologist so it was inevitable that our visit would include a number of archaeological sites. Not that we minded of course, as - parental pride aside, what he showed and patiently explained to us added a depth and dimension that, had we been left to our own devices we would have missed entirely.


In Norfolk at Caister-on-Sea we visited a Roman Fort that was built about AD 200 as a base for a unit of the Roman army and navy. The fort had a garrison of between 500 and 1,000 men. It was occupied until the end of the 4th century, when Roman forces were withdrawn from Britain. The fort occupied a small island on the north side of a large estuary. What was the estuary in Roman times is now mostly dry land occupied by Great Yarmouth. Nonetheless, sections of the outer wall and ditch together with the remains of some of the internal buildings can be seen. The fort had a stone wall and earth rampart, and there were towers at the corners and at gates in the middle of each side. Caister was a larger than usual fort so the interior was probably subdivided by a grid of streets. Near the centre is a cobbled surface, part of a road that continues through the south gate to a bay on the estuary, where boats were beached for unloading goods. If only those ancient cobbles could speak as we walked over them.



Sometime after AD 260 another fort was built on the opposite side of the estuary at Burgh Castle. Both forts served to protect merchant ships in the estuary and supported military operations. Burgh Castle is one of the best-preserved Roman forts in the country. Built in the late 3rd century AD on a low cliff above the Waveney estuary, its substantial walls are an impressive sight as we meandered from the nearby little church and entered the fort via gaps in the partially collapsed north wall. There was a keen wind and threat of rain so we appreciated the shelter afforded by the walls. The west wall has long since tumbled into the marshes, but the east wall has a large gate which is the main entrance point. Originally enclosing an area of about six acres, the walls of the fort were around 3.5 metres wide at the base, tapering to 1.5 metres at their full height of around 4.5 metres. They were further fortified by projecting towers or bastions which are an impressive sight. Over the centuries the walls have been plundered for building material, exposing the mortared flint rubble core, but they were originally faced inside and out with cut flint and tile in alternating bands. A well-preserved stretch of this facing survives along the outside of the south wall.



Back in Cambridge Rob took us to an open day put on at Trumpington by his employer. He works for a company that does archaeological surveys and this dig was in preparation for a new housing development. There were a number of old wooden barns on the site and these were to be retained. In the layers of soil occasional pottery sherds suggested Saxon occupation. A sizeable group of people had gathered to hear Richard explain how the dig proceeded, and what archaeologists looked for, apart from artefacts. His commitment and enthusiasm were plain to see and we appreciated gaining a bit more insight into Rob’s chosen profession.



We then drove out to Wandlebury Ring Fort, a huge Iron Age enclosure surrounded by fortifications that included a deep ring ditch now largely overgrown with trees and shrubs. This well defended site was occupied from the 3rd century BC, to around the 1st or 2nd century AD. In more recent times within the boundaries of the old fort a house, garden and racing stable was built in 1685 for King James II. The mansion was demolished in 1956, but the imposing stable still remains.



A couple of weeks and a few adventures later Rob drove us to Puddletown near Dorchester from where we would all spend a week exploring the south coast. We made a lunchtime stop at Silchester Roman Town and Stadium near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Silchester has been called the most enigmatic Roman town in Britain, and despite extensive digs that yielded sensational finds, some of the enigma remains. The town was at its height in the Iron Age, in the century before the Romans arrived in AD 43. It was then occupied by the Romans who built large buildings and a stadium outside the walls where we tried to visualise ourselves in gladiatorial combat. The Roman occupation appeared not to last very long with buildings abandoned and the site levelled. Finally in the sixth century the town was deliberately abandoned. The many wells were tumbled in, and the land reverted to green fields, the buried town marked only by the jagged outline of massive walls which once formed a 1.5-mile circuit. We walked a short distance along the walls and soaked up the tranquil rural scene. Meanwhile the mystery remains: why the site was never reused or grew into a modern town as most other Roman towns did.



Maiden Castle in Dorset is one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe - the size of 50 football pitches. Archaeology has revealed a complex sequence of occupation, beginning over 6,000 years ago, but the hillfort itself was mostly built in the 1st century BC. Its huge multiple ramparts and ditches once protected hundreds of residents. When it was first built, the gleaming white chalk ramparts would have towered over the surrounding landscape. It was amazing to realise that so much earth was moved using primitive wood and bone digging tools and baskets. Excavations here have revealed a Neolithic enclosure from about 3500 BC and a Roman temple built in the 4th century AD. Archaeologists have also found evidence of a late Iron Age cemetery, where many of those buried had suffered horrific injuries. It was a drizzly overcast day when we visited.. We hiked up to the hillfort via a path that winds upwards through the ramparts and ditches until we were on the topmost level where the wind whistled around our ears. Sheep grazed on the lush grass, and molehills occasionally revealed bits of Roman tile exposed after a long sojourn under the ground. Photography was difficult because of the sheer size of the place - a drone would have been useful.



A few days later we visited the one of the smallest hillforts in Dorset, Woolsbarrow Hillfort. It is located on Bloxworth Heath in a State Forest that curiously included a small patch of Eucalypts. It is simple in its layout and its age is unknown as the site has been much disturbed. The area at the top only covers about 1 hectare.



Driving north from Puddletown towards Bristol we detoured to the stone circles near the village of Stanton Drew. Here are preserved the third largest collection of standing stones in England. There are three stone circles at Stanton Drew. The Great Circle, at 113 metres in diameter, is one of the largest in the country: it has 26 surviving upright stones, although there may once have been up to 30. The other two circles, to the south-west and north-east, are smaller. Both the Great Circle and the north-east circle were approached by short ‘avenues’ of standing stones, most of which have fallen. Stone circles like these date broadly to the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (around 3000–2000 BC). Although recent surveys indicate that the remains at Stanton Drew are of a much more elaborate and important site than had previously been thought, in the absence of many facts about them, the stones have attracted a rich tradition of folklore. The most persistent tale is that the stones are the petrified members of a wedding party and its musicians, lured by the Devil to celebrate on the Sabbath and thus being punished for their revels. As it happened our visit coincided with a local wedding, so we mingled with suited and kilted wedding guests before venturing into the cow paddock, dodging fresh cowpats as we did the rounds of the stones. On a sunny day families were enjoying a picnic lunch and children played hide-and-seek around the stones.



We based ourselves for a week at Ellwood near the Forest of Dean and from there explored a very different but scenic part of England with steep valleys, thick forest and swiftly flowing rivers. Just to the east are the Cotswold hills and a collection of hillforts and longbarrows that Rob was keen to show us.
Uley Longbarrow, known locally as Hetty Peglers Tump is a Neolithic burial mound, at least 5,000 years old and impressively sited on a high ridge overlooking the Severn Valley. The skeletons that it once contained have long gone. The barrow is nearly 40 metres long and 3 metres wide, although the entrance is deceptively small. Lacking the necessary torch or inclination to crawl around on all fours we confined our investigations to the stonework around the entrance. Rob pointed out that when the barrow was originally built the covering of white chalk would have stood out like a beacon and been visible to hunters and travellers alike.



Nearby at Coaley Peak is the Nympsfield Long Barrow, which being partly excavated allowed us to get a better view of the chambered structure. Coaley Peak provides another glorious view over the Severn Valley. It’s a great place to have a picnic lunch and watch the gliders as they launch from a nearby airstrip.

A few miles to the south is Uley Bury hillfort and Rob implemented his “keep the parents fit” plan, leading us on a brisk walk around this long, flat-topped hill on a spur of the Cotswold escarpment. The reward was of course more wonderful views especially looking west over the Severn valley. Uley Bury hill fort covers about 13 hectares. It is a very large Iron Age settlement with evidence of occupation from approximately 300BC to 100AD.



While in Gloustershire there was slightly more recent history to wonder at as well. The whole area had been a coal mining area, and even in the little village where we were staying there were numerous big heaps of rock and rubble, and sudden holes in the ground to remind us of its mining history. On an afternoon walk near Goodrich castle we came across more specific remains of mining activity – tram tracks, retaining walls all now overgrown. We could only imagine the sweat and toil expended there.

And then there was the surprise of finding much earlier industrial history along the Angiddy River valley near Tintern Abbey. Flourishing from the 1560s Angiddy was one of the earliest places in the UK to industrialise. Iron ore came from the Forest of Dean, charcoal from the surrounding forests, transport was by pack horses and waterwheels provided the energy source to run furnaces, forges and wireworks. The main product was wire, produced by a lengthy and complex process. The wire was used in a myriad different ways: in knitting needles, fishing hooks, bird cages, buckles, priming wire for guns, pins and in fashionable Elizabethan clothing. Across Britain thousands of people were employed making wire into carding combs for the woollen industry. Pig iron was also cast at the furnaces and finished goods such as fire backs and cannons were shipped out from the dock at Tintern and exported to countries all around the world.



Scotland called, and from our base near Oban on the west coast we were able to explore some wondrous scenery and yes, more ancient history. We drove down the narrow winding road to Kilmartin Glen which has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland. There are more than 350 ancient monuments within a six mile radius of the village, with 150 of them being prehistoric. We started at the excellent museum in the village which houses artefacts from some of the sites in the valley below. We had a coffee there and looked out over some of the 5 burial mounds that stretch along the picturesque valley. The area spans 5,000 years with a multitude of cairns, standing stones, carved rock, stone circles, forts and castles. We walked around some of the standing stones and cairns, dodging sheep and showers, trying to comprehend a society that built such an amazing array of stone structures.



Later that day John and Rob managed to find the petroglyph site where characteristic cup and ring carvings cover sheets of exposed rock. Finally they climbed up to the remains of the fortress of the Scots at Dunadd, a royal centre of Dal Riata, that is located to the south of Kilmartin, on the edge of the Moine Mhòr or Great Moss.



Travelling further east from Oban towards Pitlochry we visited the Crannog centre at Kenmore on Loch Tay. Crannogs are a type of ancient loch-dwelling found throughout Scotland and Ireland. In Highland Perthshire the prehistoric Crannogs were originally timber-built roundhouses supported on piles or stilts driven into the loch-bed. Most are circular structures that seem to have been built as individual homes to accommodate extended families. The earliest loch-dwelling in Scotland is some 5,000 years old but people built, modified and re-used Crannogs in Scotland up until the 17th century AD. Throughout their long history Crannogs served as farmers' homesteads, status symbols, refuges in times of trouble, hunting and fishing stations and even holiday residences.
The Crannog Centre combines a museum, a reconstructed crannog built using authentic materials and methods and a centre where the skills associated with crannogs can be learned and demonstrated. After visiting the crannog we saw a very good demonstration of wood turning, fire making, wool spinning, stone boring and grain grinding all using traditional methods. The idea of living over the water is an unusual one, but it makes sense in terms of security and maybe liveability in a cold climate. We continue to be astonished at the skills and sheer ingenuity of our ancestors.



Our final sample of ancient civilisation was a quick stopover at the small Croft Moraig Stone circle on a farm near Aberfeldy in Perthshire, with its concentric rings and outliers on an artificial platform. The history of the site is known from an excavation in 1965. It dates from about 5000 years ago, when a horseshoe arrangement of fourteen wide wooden posts was erected. This was surrounded by a ditch. The posts were later replaced by eight stones of graded height. Another smaller stone stood just outside. Finally a twelve-metre diameter circle of twelve large stones was constructed and a couple of large outlying stones added.



What stood out for us as we took in all these sites was the incredibly rich variety of various groups and cultures that have occupied and shaped England over the course of the last few thousand years. And how the practices of those people have evolved and become adapted so that they can still be seen in many of things that we do today. It is a sobering and humbling reminder as we work and play surrounded by our modern technology that we are just the next page in this vast catalogue of our history.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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